As primatologist Frans de Waal explains, "We belong to the category of animals known among zoologists as 'obligatorily gregarious,' meaning that we have no option but to stick together. This is why fear of ostracism lurks in the corners of every human mind: being expelled is the worst thing that can befall us. It was so in biblical times, and it remains so today. Evolution has instilled a need to belong and to feel accepted. We are social to our core." Early studies of human survival have noted the "fight or flight" stress response. Newer research has observed that not everyone responds to stress in the same way: instead of fight or flight, some adopt a "tend and befriend" response. By caring for the young and banding together for protection and support, we have ensured the survival of the species. This pattern of relationship building not only ensures physical survival but also contributes to psychic well-being. Those who have been involved in the more nurturing aspects of child rearing can testify to the psychic satisfaction of rocking a baby to sleep. Mpho and I both know the simple joy of being able to heal a hurt with a kiss and banish midnight monsters with a cuddle. Caring for the weak and vulnerable has health benefits for the caregiver as well as for the recipient of the attention. Elder-care settings have demonstrated the physical and psychological benefits to seniors of caring for small animals. Having a pet to tend can soothe anxious children.
Ubuntu is the Xhosa word used to describe the "tend and befriend" survival behavior. Ubuntu recognizes that human beings need each other for survival and well-being. A person is a person only through other persons, we say. We must care for one another in order to thrive.
The impulse to care, the instinct for goodness, is a shining thread woven into the fabric of our being. As human beings we may tarnish the sheen or rend the fabric of our own goodness. We can act in cruel and heartless ways. But because we are human, we cannot completely rip out and destroy every vestige of the godliness by which and for which we were made. We cannot alter our essence. We are made by God, who is goodness itself. We are made like God. We are made for goodness.
The scripture that we read, the places we have been, the people we have seen, the evidence of science and our own life experience have convinced us that goodness is our essential quality. In the next chapter we will see that "being good" is the wrong goal. Attached to that notion of "being good" are all the "oughts" and "shoulds" that we think will win us the prize we truly crave: God's love and divine favor. We are wearing ourselves out in a quest to buy what is already ours: God's unmerited love. I will begin by sharing a very personal story about unmerited love. But first turn with us into the stillness and listen to God speak with the voice of the heart:
My child, I made you for myself.
I made you like myself.
I delight in you.
My heart aches with pity
When you smother joy under the onslaught of busyness.
Then there is barely a minute
To pause and listen for me.
You run everywhere looking for life,
Searching for the life of life.
All the while I am here.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath.